July 20, 2020

Reading ‘The Jewish Maiden’ after the Holocaust, By Lorraine Schein

Editor’s note: I have long been aware of the virulent antisemitism that sometimes appears in fairy tales. Example: Maria Tatar’s splendid The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales has a section on it, featuring, “The Jew in the Brambles.” I’m pleased to be offering Lorraine Schein’s take on this important issue.

I recently read this 1855 story, one of Andersen’s less well-known ones. I thought about it from my perspective as a child of Holocaust survivors. Articles I found online about it note that Andersen’s portrayal of Jews in it was sympathetic for his time. Indeed I read online at the site Scandinavian Jewish Forum (HERE) that he was friends with a Jewish family, the Melchiors, and a frequent guest to their house. He was even given his own room there, and stayed there often, especially after he became ill. 

“The Jewish Maiden” is about a Jewish girl, Sarah, a student at a Christian charity school, brought there by her poor father after her mother’s death. Her mother’s dying wish had been that Sarah remain “a daughter of Israel” (without Christian baptism).

But though Sarah was given a book to study during the school’s religious-teachings classes, she began paying more attention to the Scripture lessons than to the book. Andersen tells us, “And the teacher soon noticed that she listened more intently than any of the rest.”

Reading this, one might wonder: Why didn’t the teacher simply send her to another area where she couldn’t hear the lesson?  But the usual sensitivity of Andersen toward his characters is shown here, as he explains: “But to send her from the room during the Scripture lesson might have given offense and raised various thoughts in the minds of the other children in the class, and so she remained.”

Sarah’s father, seeing her interest in Christianity, in order to be true to his deathbed promise, transfers his daughter out of the Christian school. Years later, Sarah has become a maid in a small town. Since the house she worked in was right across the street from the church, Sarah would listen to the Sunday hymns as eagerly as she once listened to the Scripture lessons.

Her mistress becomes very ill, but Sarah does not leave her and continues working as well as helping the sick woman. The woman asks her to read from the Bible, and Sarah is overcome with the truth of Christianity in her heart, though she struggles to stay true to her mother’s wish.

One evening, while at her mistress’s bedside, she faints, and becomes very ill. Neighbors carry her to the hospital for the poor but she dies.

Andersen ends the story with:

and they bore her to her resting-place in the earth, but not to the churchyard of the Christians. There was no place for the Jewish girl; but they dug a grave for her outside the wall. And God’s sun, which shines upon the graves of the churchyard of the Christians, also throws its beams on the grave of the Jewish maiden beyond the wall. And when the psalms of the Christians sound across the churchyard, their echo reaches her lonely resting-place; and she who sleeps there will be counted worthy at the resurrection, through the name of Christ the Lord, who said to His disciples, “John baptized you with water, but I will baptize you with the Holy Ghost.”

Sarah’s inner love of Christianity is shown as deserving of baptism, so in the afterlife Sarah becomes a Christian, though she resisted it when alive. Andersen equates this with Christ’s disciples being baptized by the Holy Spirit.

This is dismaying, but was a common practice even in America. In some old cemeteries in the South, Jews were buried in a different section, if not outside the walls of the cemetery as here. I have seen this in a small town in New Orleans.

It is also dismaying to me that Sarah never completes her education and becomes a servant, though probably an education for poor women in those days didn’t lead to much. In contrast to “The Jewish Maiden” is the portrayal of Jews in Grimm—such as in “The Jew in the Thorns” which is plainly anti-Semitic, using stereotypical anti-Semitic physical descriptions and showing physical abuse of its Jewish character.

One thing that always has struck me about Andersen’s tales is the sympathy which he shows not only to people and animals but to things as well, as shown by the titles of many of his stories: “The Teapot,” “The Shilling,” “The Tin Soldier,” “ The Pen and the Ink Stand,” and “What the Moon Saw” (which personifies the Moon!).

I do not feel this same identification with the poor, the sad, or the inanimate in Grimms’ fairy tales. This is a generalization, but some of Andersen’s stories make me cry or saddened, but in a moving, sublime way that exalts and transcends, and are almost Buddhist in jtheir feeling for the suffering of all creatures and things; the Grimms’ are entertaining, sometimes horrifying but keep their characters at a distance. In addition, Andersen’s stories usually have a gentle, satirical humor that the Grimms’ lack.

My mother and aunt were taken to a hospital to convalesce in neutral Sweden after the war, and this story reflects the more tolerant attitude of Scandinavians, and certainly Andersen even then towards Jews. Though historically there had been anti-Semitism there as well, it was not as virulent.

Poor Sarah! All the Christianity in her heart would not have saved her had she been born in the Nazi era.


Lorraine Schein is a New York writer. Her work has appeared in VICE Terraform, Strange Horizons, Star*Line, Truancy, and Little Blue Marble, and in the anthologies Tragedy Queens: Stories Inspired by Lana del Rey & Sylvia Plath, and Eighteen. The Futurist’s Mistress, her poetry book, is available from Mayapplepress.com Her work has also previously appeared in Enchanted Conversation.

Image: Young Jewish Girl in Tangier, by Charles Landelle.


Aliza Faber said...

I have a hard time accepting the statement that Andersen's portrayal of Jews was sympathetic, even if it was better than other portrayals during his time. Anti-Semitic tropes work both ways - some are based on stereotypes like the Grimm stories you mentioned, but I feel like attempts to Christianize Jewish characters are just as bad. It sounds like Sarah is supposed to be a sympathetic character only because she saw the truth of Christianity, which further de-legitimatizes Jews who decide to stay faithful to their own religion. The only "good" Jews are the ones that are Christians at heart.

Katew said...

I can see reading it this way, Aliza. Also, Andersen had a habit of trying to “glorify” his female protagonists after death. Example: The Little Mermaid and the obnoxious “Spirit of the Air” business. But he did it for “Christian” protagonists like Karen in “The Red Shoes,” who is lifted to heaven while in church. HCA had a nasty habit of beating the hell out of his young female characters. “The Young Jewish Maid” certainly falls into that continuum.
I think Lorraine’s final paragraph is powerful and leaves the reader with questions about how much Andersen should be considered as sympathetic to Jews. To me, it was a twist designed to make us think about the entire previous essay. We’ll probably hear from Lorraine in this, and I’m interested to see what she’ll say.

Wolfchick3 said...

I do like how Lorraine comments on the different styles of writing between Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Grimm stories write with distance from their characters and enhance the more outward events. Where as HCA gives readers insight to the characters thoughts and feelings. This does make it easier for some readers to sympathize with the characters. Adding the fact that the character that HAC decided to have readers sympathize with was a Jew. Even going so far as to have the main character struggle with faith. A struggle that some do not expect to happen but is personal. Versus Grimm’s blatant description of telling events to enhance “the good servant” and his cunning. It shows how writing styles affect how a reader can sympathize or see a character.

Kelly Jarvis said...

I understand Anderson's message is controversial, but from what I know of him, he felt like an outcast, so I think he had sympathy for the Jewish girl and was also attracted to Christianity because it welcomed all followers in spite of their birth. I learned a lot from this article!

AMOffenwanger said...

I was sad to learn a few years ago that my favourite 19th-century fairy tale writer, Wilhelm Hauff, had a blatantly anti-semitic tale in his collection. My childhood copy of Hauff's Fairy Tales, printed in the 1960s, left it out (fortunately), so I did not even know of its existence. Sadly, anti-semitism was a normal part of European culture that had been deeply engrained for centuries, not to say millennia; the Nazis didn't have far to reach back into the cultural grab bag to find material to build on.
As for the difference between the Grimms and Andersen, that's a whole other and quite big topic - partially it's the difference between folk fairy tale (told among the people, taken down in writing by the collector) and literary fairy tale (original tale written by one specific writer). There is much that could be said about it - your take on how either of them deal with Jewish characters is a very interesting aspect that exemplifies some of the differences between the tales.